Where they were found
The Guanajuato mummies were discovered in the cemetery of Guanajuato, a city northwest of Mexico City (near Léon). They are accidental modern mummies and were literally "dug up" between the years 1865 and 1958 when a local law required relatives to pay a kind of grave tax. You could pay the tax once (170 pesos) and be done with it; this option may have appealed to wealthier individuals. But you were also allowed to pay a yearly fee (50 pesos); this would have appealed to less wealthy families. However, if the relatives could not pay this yearly tax for three years, the body (which had, by the way, become accidentally mummified) was dug up from the cemetery and (if the fee still wasn't paid) placed on display in El museo de las momias. [Of course, what if the person's family had moved from town--or what if the person was the last person from their family? Well, it didn't matter; the law was the law!]
Fortunately, in 1958, the law was changed. Although no new bodies have been exhumed, the museum still displays the original mummies.
According to an article in the Arizona Republic (November 1, 2005), the mummies began attracting tourists in the early 1900s, "when cemetery workers began charging people a few pesos to enter the ossuary building where bones and mummies were stored. But business really took off after the 1970 movie Santo Versus the Mummies of Guanajuato, starring masked wrestler Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta."
NOTE: The first mummy was found on June 9, 1865; the man's name was Dr. Remigio Leroy. The museum opened in 1894.
How they were made
A combination of the soil conditions and a dry climate of the mountainous area caused the bodies in the local cemetery to dry out naturally before they could decompose. The bodies were placed in tombs, seven rows high; apparently, those in the middle row were more likely to have been naturally mummified. However, only those who failed to pay the grave tax were ever exhumed so information about mummification will always be incomplete.
How many were made
No one is certain how many mummified bodies were removed from the crypts, but I found 119 mummies on display in Guanajuato's mummy museum when i visited. Possibly, many other natural mummies are lying in the cemetery...but no one will ever find out, since the law has been changed.
What's special about them
The Guanajuato mummies are some of the strangest ones ever placed on display. Some are clothed, some aren't. A few are wearing only their socks and/or shoes. Some are old, others are only infants. One tiny baby mummy is labeled, "La momia más pequeño del mundo"--the smallest mummy in the world. The baby and the mother (they died during a caesarean section) are in the museum, but they will not be found together.
The museum contains a few local legends as well. For example, one body was said to belong to a woman who had been buried alive. When the Mummy Road Show hosts researched the mummy, they concluded that two factors suggested this legend was correct: the woman's arms were raised over her face and her forehead had scratch marks.
The question is: given the circumstances of their exhibition, should they still be displayed? Or would the proper response be to arrange for a dignified and respectful burial? Or have the mummies become an essential component of the town's budget? They help the town earn a great deal of tourism dollars, since almost a million visitors come to Guanajuato each year to look at the mummies.
Which Guanajuato mummies are most interesting
1. Ignacia Aguilar, who may have been buried alive. When the hosts of National Geographic's Mummy Road Show visited the museum for the Halloween 2002 episode, they concluded that two factors suggested this legend was correct: the woman's arms were raised over her face and her forehead had scratch marks:
2. Juan Jaramillo (left), the best preserved of the Guanajuato mummies.
3. Gabino Castro who was buried in 1904 with an identification.
4. One head that reportedly belonged to a robber.
5. Two unidentified women, one who died at an old age (right) and one who is wearing socks (some of the mummies are unclothed)
6. Four children, including Magdalena Aguilar:
Another child was Nino Gorro:
Where to see them
The Guanajuato mummies are on display in the Museo de las momias high on a hill overlooking the city. The closest airport is Léon (about 45 minutes away)--or you can take a bus from Mexico City.
Tour buses arrive regularly. Although you may not learn much about mummies of the lives they lived, you will probably learn a great deal about the people who come to visit them--if you ever make a mummy trip to Mexico.
Where to find more information
Long Live the Dead: The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato is the catalog for an exhibit of Guanajuato mummies that toured the United States a few years ago. It has the best information and photographs about the mummies. It will introduce you to the mummies as well as to Guanajuato, Mexico, a city known for its rich silver mines, artist Diego Rivera and colonial-era Spanish architecture. Nestled in the mountains of the Sierra de Guanajuato, the historical and picturesque city of Guanajuato is a collage of pastel-colored facades, balconies trimmed with iron work, flower-filled window boxes, cobblestone streets and breathtaking vistas of beautiful churches and plazas. If you are interested in the Guanajuato mummies, you will want this catalog.
You might also read The Mummies of Guanajuato, an out-of-print book (published in 1978) by Ray Bradbury with photographs by Archie Lieberman.
The book contains a short story written by Bradbury entitled "The Next in Line" (written in 1947) about a couple who visit the Museo de las momias where the wife has an interesting experience. Filled with haunting black-and-white photos of the mummies by Archie Lieberman. This is the real draw of the book, which makes it a keepsake for any mummy library. Highly recommended!